The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA

Complexity By Design

While designers often strive to create intuitive, elegant, and simple solutions to a problem, cartoonists Rube Goldberg and his British counterpart Heath Robinson took an unorthodox approach. They imagined complex chain reaction style inventions constructed to perform simple tasks like opening a door or filling a dog dish. Eighth graders recently learned about the design ethos of both men and created their own Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson machines in Creators class. 

Students began by learning about the similarities and differences between Robinson and Goldberg. While both men were known for their overly-complex contraptions, there were some differences in their styles. Goldberg’s machines often relied on animals following their instincts, like a dog shaking off water or a bird pecking at some seed, as part of the chain of events. Goldberg also carefully labeled his designs to make it easy to follow the physics involved in each stage in the action. Robinson’s designs were more mechanically driven. While each invention was given a title such as the “Bedside Bomb Extinguisher,” the images rely on the reader to infer how the machine works. 

Creativity and Design faculty David Dixon and Andrew Shirley asked their students to create cartoons in the style of either Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg. Students sketched out complex designs to water plants, close the blinds, or turn on a computer and explained how their design would work. Robinson’s designs often used pieces constructed primarily for that machine, so many students chose to incorporate items they might find around the house more in the style of Rube Goldberg. The second assignment was for students to attempt to build their design at home. Each design had to incorporate at least four working parts, and students photographed each stage of construction and then took a video of the final machine in action. Some devices worked, like the construction that used a yearbook, baseball, a box, and string to turn off a light switch. Other inventions like the drawer opening contraption that used string books and a hand weight were less successful. While the assignments differed slightly in each class, students all had the opportunity to explore the creative use of materials and the process of designing, refining, and evaluating the success of their design. 

In David’s classes, he added the additional challenge of a “speed build,” where students collected their materials and had 45 minutes to develop a design. “Having to create something under pressure engages the analytical side of your brain,” says David, “and it is also a great exercise in handling frustration and picking yourself back up after you’ve failed to try again.” David notes that most machines failed multiple times before finding success, but that didn’t hamper the students’ enjoyment of the project. While they expressed their frustration as they reworked their designs, David also asked them if they were having fun. Students responded with a resounding, “Yes!”